If you find yourself on the Costa Blanca and it’s a pint of Kentish bitter you’re craving, there’s no better place – they have it imported – than the English Speaking Club in El Campello, a small village 20 minutes’ drive north of Alicante.
The club’s only rule, as its name suggests: speak English. Founded in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher swept to power, the club is a bastion of Britishness. The Union flag flies outside; The Queen’s portrait hangs on the wall; and on Fridays, it’s Fish and Chips night.
There are as many as 800,000 British expats in Spain. Many, like the majority of the English Speaking Club’s members, are retired and have moved here permanently.
Most have gone to the ‘Costas’, Spain’s seaside, sunbathed, costal resorts. “I’m only ever going back in a box,” one member told The Independent when asked if he ever fancied moving back to Old Albion.
According to electoral maths, Spain’s expat Brits account for about 13 parliamentary constituencies and in a general election that’s expected to be the tightest for generations, these people – and many still vote - could swing it.
“Of course, that’s why the government doesn’t want us to vote,” says Richard Hill, the club’s vice-president and a retired Hampshire policeman. He doesn’t elaborate, but is not alone in feeling ignored by Westminster.
“I don’t like what I see in Britain. I think it’s become a nanny state – when I went to school I played conkers. I got hit on the head by conkers and bits smashed into my face, but I’m here. Now, they’re either not allowed to play conkers or they’ve got to wear glasses. We’ve gone over the top. There are more personal freedoms here in Spain. So do I still want to be known as British, the answer is: I’m not sure.”
Mr Hill, wearing a very un-policeman like gold waistcoat and earring, says he considers himself integrated in Spain, after 14 years of living in a small village away from the housing developments here that over the years have attracted thousands of Brits.
Like most people in the club, he’s going to vote. Asked which party he plans to back, Mr Hill says he wants to answer in a vague way: “The left and the right are usually both wrong. Somewhere in the middle, which is where the Liberal [Democrat]s reside, usually lies the best solution.
“And I abhor Nigel Farage. I think he’s dire. God help us if he gets any form of power. I should be biased towards the Conservatives, as a former police officer, but I’m not. I’m anti-Labour. I think Miliband would be a disaster.”
Abhor Nigel Farage, Mr Hill may, but a recurring theme at the English Speaking Club is immigration to the UK. Many of the members are concerned about the load the on the NHS, and the lack of integration within local communities.
“I believe in the some the things Ukip stand for,” says Michael Rushbrook, the club’s president, an expat of 11 years and before that, 35 years in the army.
“I don’t believe in some of the others, but I believe they could split the vote to such a degree that we could end up with Labour back in power… Miliband is a buffoon.
“Ukip is making a lot of gaffes, but they believe in British values. Farage is right when he says the Race Relations Act should be reformed. He’s actually right… Immigration is the elephant in the room – everyone is terrified of immigration, but the fact of the matter is that something has to be done about it – the country cannot cope. And who do you blame for that? Antonio Blair.”
Others, however, point out that to be anti-immigrant in the UK, when they are supping from pint glasses at a bar in Spain, and relying on the Spanish health service – universally accepted as excellent - when they fall ill may be viewed elsewhere with a degree of scepticism.
Immigration aside, what would win votes on the Costa Blanca? Your correspondent floated the idea of an expat MP – popular with some, but generally dismissed on account of the huge expenses.
One issue that has caused genuine anger is the government’s plan to remove winter fuel allowance payments for expat pensioners. Many at the club are among the 95,000 who are set to lose as much as £300, a payment that Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has described as an, “obscene waste of taxpayers’ money.”
As Mr Hill points out, “It does get cold in Spain – somebody needs a lesson geography and weather.
“I’ve written to my MP - as most people [at the club] have – I didn’t even get a reply,” he says.
Expats also lose the right to vote in UK general elections after 15 years abroad, a point that angers everybody at the club.
An hour up the coast is Benidorm – home of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks; nightclubs offering “live sex shows” and greasy spoon cafes. It is stag weekend central. By 11.30 on the Monday morning we visit, a karaoke bar next to the beach is in full swing. There is flesh everywhere.
But it is also home to many Brits. The Ibrox Bar, a pub dedicated to Glasgow’s Rangers football club, is decorated with team photographs, players’ signed jerseys and more Union flags. Last September there was a party here to celebrate the fact that Scotland had voted against independence.
Wilma Wallace, the bar manager who emigrated six years ago, is blunt in her assessment of Britain’s politicians: “they are a waste of bleeding time,” she says.
She says that she considers herself to be a Conservative, but like some of those in El Campello, she is worried about immigration. “You’ve got lots of people on the dole and on benefits, and then there’s all the foreign people coming in. I think I would now vote Ukip, because they would put a stop to all the people coming in.”
Her daughter, 27 year-old Laura, who hasn’t been back to the UK in six years, says she isn’t that bothered who wins, but like her mother, is worried about benefits claimants and immigration. “I was brought up a Tory, so if I was going to vote, it would probably be for them.”
When we tell her that that her mother was now a Ukip supporter, she changes her mind: “well, I’d probably vote for them now too, but anyway, I’m staying here. It’s much better, I’m never going home.”
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